Virginia House Bill Could Legitimize A Way to Ban Sexually Explicit Content in Schools

A controversial bill is going before the Virginia legislature that would allow parents to take a more active role in regulating their children’s education and give them the option to opt their children out of specific assignments that they might deem inappropriate. While parents should have the right to determine what their children read, the bill raises concerns that the legislation may give authorities carte blanche to ban material they deem “sexually explicit.”

House Bill 516 stems from a parent Laura Murphy’s 2013 attempt to ban Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel Beloved from her son’s AP English class in Fairfax County, Virginia, after her son complained of nightmares. Calling the content of the book inappropriate and too intense for teenagers, Murphy’s challenge went before the school board where, in a 6-2 vote, it was decided to keep the book in the AP English curriculum.

Despite the fact that the book was kept as part of the school’s curriculum, Murphy hasn’t dropped her case. In fact, it escalated to the Virginia House of Delegates, where House Speaker William J. Howell and Delegate Steven Landes have crafted a bill that would require the Virginia Department of Education to establish a policy that would give parents the opportunity to preemptively review any content determined to be “sexually explicit.” If a parent doesn’t like what they see, they can request that alternative materials be made available to their children.

“This is a way to give parents a chance to say, ‘I find this objectionable, can I have an alternative,’” said Landes. “I think that’s reasonable. That’s not saying they don’t have to complete an assignment. That’s saying, ‘This is material I find problematic.’”

People, like Murphy, argue that passing this bill would force schools to be more “transparent” about their curriculum choices. In a CitizenGO campaign, Murphy and others urge the Virginia General Assembly to pass House Bill 516 and “fight against sexually explicit material in the public schools” and provide a means to “protect” their children.

Others, like James LaRue, the director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom at the American Library Association, however see the Bill as a slippery slope that can damage the integrity of the education system and put students at risk for not being able to articulate real issues in society. As LaRue commented to The Franklin News-Post, “keeping students from books like “Beloved” is a disservice because literature allows young people to expand their world view.”

LaRue himself is conflicted, though, because House Bill 516 isn’t a call to outright ban books from Virginia public schools. “It may be (a way to ban a book),” he says. “But it may also be a less drastic way for one parent to look out for her child than to deprive a whole school of a work of literature.”

As LaRue adds:

The problem isn’t that reading is dangerous. It’s that the world is dangerous. Which is safer? Reading about it, preparing some strategies to deal with various ills of the world or being surprised by it on the street? Literature is about conflict and growth. And sometimes it involves sex.

Last week the Virginia Education Association voted to not take a position on the bill, and it is now being sent to the Elementary and Secondary Education subcommittee for review. CBLDF will continue to follow the story.

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Contributing Editor Caitlin McCabe is an independent comics scholar who loves a good pre-code horror comic and the opportunity to spread her knowledge of the industry to those looking for a great story!